Robot teachers score in maths and English

Computers in the classroom are revolutionising school work for 80,000 British children, reports Ben Russell

Ben Russell
Saturday 09 May 1998 23:02
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ELECTRONIC "cyber teachers" are revolutionising the way tens of thousands of children learn. An estimated 80,000 youngsters are now taught by machines, with software designed to produce electronic lessons tailored to individual needs.

High technology is at the heart of Tony Blair's drive to improve schools - the Government has pledged to give all children access to a computer - and ministers believe programmes now being used could help raise standards in the Three Rs. Indeed, a three-year study published this week has found significant gains in basic maths and English among pupils using the electronic teaching aids.

Education Minister Kim Howells said the electronic teachers - known as integrated learning systems - could provide a powerful tool for the teachers of the future, although there are warnings that computers, no matter how sophisticated, could never replace good teachers.

Interactive teaching software has become a multi-million pound business, according to computer suppliers, is continuing to grow and is now in use in one in six secondary schools and hundreds of primary schools.

The market leader, RM Learning Systems, claims children using the computers can make a year's progress in maths in just four months and a year's progress in reading and writing in just three months. The firm has sold its interactive packages to more than 1,000 schools.

Barry Taylor, sales and marketing manager at RM, said: "These are packages with a lot of depth. The computer can respond to the individual student's strengths and weaknesses and then it will map a path through the body of learning."

Teachers have praised the potential of new technology in the classroom. Mike Moore, head of information technology at Little Hulton School in Salford, and an executive member of the Association of Teachers and Lecturers, said: "This is a great stimulus to the children.

"They really love working on the computers, because they get instant responses and instant feedback. When you have a classroom with a teacher using traditional methods the students are very passive."

Research by Nottingham University psychologist Professor David Wood found a mixed picture, although children using the computer systems did show improvements in maths over pupils taught using purely traditional means after just six months. Pupils using software to improve their English also improved, although their success varied considerably from school to school. Minister Howells praised the report. He said: "It suggests that there could be a role for integrated learning systems, particularly in the development of literacy and numeracy skills.

"It also shows that the potential for information and communications technology to help pupils' learning depends on how it is used by teachers and schools."

But teachers and computer experts are warning that computers must be used with care.

Peter Avis, director of the British Educational Communications and Technology Agency, which commissioned the Nottingham research, said there should be strict limits on computer use.

He said: "The methods which seem to work certainly do not involve using the computers all day. We are talking about a limited amount of time like 15 or 20 minutes three times a week. Children are motivated do to their learning on a computer. But the success of computers depends on what the schools are trying to do with them."

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